Purnima Malhotra • Last updated on Fri, 15 Jun, 2018, 12:18 AM
“This is the best time for me to go out there and play some quality competitive matches” © Getty
When Smriti Mandhana received a text from Trevor Griffin in Nagpur, she knew the one thing she absolutely had to make sure before committing to anything. The head coach of Western Storm, England Super League’s defending champions, was calling to find out if the Indian opener would be keen to come on board for the 2018 season. Mandhana, who was playing against England at the time, only wanted to know “where will they send me to bat”.
Griffin assured Mandhana they’d reserved nothing but the opening slot for her, and proceeded to procure the NOC from BCCI. “The first thing he told me was that they want me to open the batting, and I was happy that I will be getting my preferred slot,” Mandhana tells Cricbuzz after her participation in the 2018 season was formally announced by the franchise on Thursday (June 14).
This role clarity was crucial to the Indian T20I vice-captain whose first appearance at a foreign T20 league was with Brisbane Heat at the Women’s Big Bash League in 2016-17 season. Slotted in the middle-order at Heat – a role she had never donned even in domestic cricket – Mandhana had an underwhelming season in Australia. Her only half-century came in the game right before she suffered an ACL tear that even put her 2017 World Cup in doubt.
However, with Women’s World Twenty20 2018 only four months away, Mandhana is eyeing as much match time in her usual opening slot as she can get. “Because playing in middle-order won’t really help me prepare for the World Cup. He [Griffin] was the one who actually assured me I would be opening; he said he’d like me to utilise those first six overs. So, that’s was the main consideration [for me]. I think this is the best shot for me to prepare for the World Cup,” says Mandhana, who is expected to link up with the Storm squad on July 16.
It also helped that England’s Super League, which begins July 22, slots perfectly in the Indian domestic off-season. Any further doubts Mandhana may have had before signing the deal were dispelled by Indian head coach, Tushar Arothe, who she first sought advice from when Griffin got in touch. “I thought it would be good exposure for me; we’re just months away [from World T20] and we don’t have anything scheduled in India. And it’s monsoon, so I can’t do a lot of practice on my own either. I thought this is the best time for me to go out there and play some quality competitive matches before World Cup starts.”
Arothe told her as much, and Mandhana officially signed the contract during Asia Cup 2018. However, with pre-tour camps becoming a norm with Indian women’s teams lately, it remains to be seen if she will stay with the Storm for the entire duration of the league. India are scheduled to play in Sri Lanka in September, which means a pre-season conditioning camp could cut her stint short before the knockouts, should the 2017 winners get there. Nonetheless, Mandhana is “excited” to get to her maiden Super League stint going.
Barring a lukewarm Asia Cup campaign recently, Mandhana has been on song since her World Cup ended with a string of poor scores after a 90 and an unbeaten 106 at the start of the tournament. She worked on her technique in the off-season, opening up her stance a bit, and the results followed.
The recipient of BCCI’s Best International Women Cricketer of 2017-18 season, Mandhana kick-started the year with an 84 against South Africa before notching up her career-best 135 in the following game at Kimberley. She is India’s leading run-scorer in ODIs in 2018 having notched up 531 runs at an average over 66, with six knocks of 50 or more, in nine innings so far. Post the World Cup, she has also aggregated 402 runs in 12 T20I innings, which include four half-centuries and a career-best 40-ball 76 against England in the tri-series in Mumbai.
It’s the form and consistency that not only prompted the call from Griffin but also earned her a Grade A contract for the season from the Indian board. Mandhana, however, remains firmly grounded. “I never take my place in the team for granted, because everyone goes through ups and downs. So, I’ve never assumed I am in the team. I know I have to keep performing for me to stay in this Indian team. This is what I always keep in mind.
“Playing in England, with the foreign players, they’d be expecting me to perform being the overseas player. And having those expectations would be really good for me to prepare mentally for the World Cup, where there will be expectations from everyone back home. In that sense I can prepare and learn to deal with the ‘expectations load’,” she adds.
“And of course, playing with all the foreign players, sharing dressing room with these people and sharing their knowledge and how they go about their preparation and their game will be really insightful. It will be interesting to know their perspectives and probably even take it in my game if I like it. If I can improve as an individual as a cricketer and take my game one level up, it will be really great takeaway [from the Super League stint].”
There are still 30 days before Mandhana has to pack her bags for a month-long stint in the “cold” English conditions, away from the comforts of home. But the benefits far outweigh the minor inconveniences. “You get to learn a lot of things – about yourself, about yourself as a player and where you are at. Being around your teammates gets you in a comfort zone and playing in these foreign T20 leagues gets you out of that comfort zone. You’re in a new environment; you get to learn yourself better since you have a lot of time on your hand.”